Ever since social media ripped open our real and metaphorical closets, there has been a surge in sari consciousness. Cherished textiles with nostalgia-evoking resumes along with their hoarders, designers, revivalists, narrators, historians, filmmakers began tumbling out of the closet. Sari pacts, seminars, exhibitions, books, melas and fashion collections wove a textured meme — half-serious, half-curious but well intentioned to “save the sari”. This meme made many of us living the sari script everyday happy to be finally noticed even as it gave others a story-telling device. For yet others, the drape became an exciting tool to be strapped up, stitched, zipped and primped with unconventional accessories and blouses.
Now, every year has a sari moment — three even — that pushes up the current rate of interest in the unstitched garment. The #SareeSearch, a Twitter poll by MaryKay Carlson the Charge d’Affaires of the US Embassy in India is definitely a Sari Moment. Carlson has invited votes to help her choose her debut sari for the 70th Independence Day next week.
By narrowing her search to four kinds of saris with Carlson photographed in each, the #SareeSearch is personal yet public, Indian yet devised by an international diplomat. Best of all, a winner is waiting to be picked.
This year got another sari moment. The Sari Series, an Anthology of Drape, a non-profit project by digital publication Border&Fall documents regional drapes through 80 odd how-to films to be released next month. These digitise, modernise and innovate the story beyond sari matriarch Rta Kapur Chishti’s documentation in her book Saris: Tradition and Beyond.
Sixty stylishly shot photographs are up on #WeWearCulture, Google’s Art and Culture platform. Before Carlson walks out wearing her winner next week, it is time for the de rigeur annual sari article. This is that kind of piece which first pays homage to the sari with lyrical adjectives — beautiful, powerful, poetic, revered in literature, film and fashion, the timeless costume of goddesses, queens and desi girls. It then pulls out some threads. How did this garment we thought we may leave behind get ahead of us?
That’s what the sari is today — like fashion itself — a little ahead of all that’s done about it. The #100sareepact, a rage two years back, no longer sounds as energetic. Toronto-based visual artist Meera Sethi’s #Unstitched: The Sari Project to create a community of 108 South Asian women has slipped from top recall. Men wearing saris in the quest of a non-gendered identity don’t raise eyebrows any more. Designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee’s Save the Sari campaign? No longer relevant: The sari has been saved. It went from being anti-fashion, a fixed garment from our costume history to a charm in fashion upstaging every innovative garment in its way. It continues to knock out its peers like the dhoti, bandhgala, the salwar kameez in popularity and adaptability. But you already know that. The arrival of the bikini sari, made from technologically advanced performance fabrics? Oh yes.
There is little doubt that the sari is a versatile, imaginative sutradhar to talk about India’s past and present. It lends itself well to marketable events, the dark theatre of plagiarism as well as to fabulous weaving interventions. It has fascinatingly regressed from being Aunty-ish to an Instagram diva. Designer Payal Khandwala is set to launch her short saris — half the length of six metres — that she says “can be worn with anything, even a pair of jeans”. So far, a sari was the heroine in a woman’s look, everything else became secondary. Now that it is open to playing supporting actor, watch out for more national awards.
Yet let’s not forget that the sari benefits from an ideological bias — being a national treasure, its sanctity clouds the fact that the sari trend is just that: A trend. No wonder the veteran nurturers of Indian handlooms, also sari saviours as a logical extension of their roles, go about unfazed.
Sari evangelism might need some debate. A sari by itself can be beautiful but to become powerful or humble as it is often called, it needs a human being to steer its language. Chiffons now copy handlooms and handlooms are woven with design dexterity to imitate sleek chiffons, but isn’t this a resounding victory of weavers working in creative tandem with textile designers than some social media fad? The modern sari’s (and what is that?) most compelling contribution is as a tool of self-determination in the culture of identity politics confused as it was by global options. So now we don’t just wear a sari. We wear My Sari with a personal twist, a shirt, sneakers, chewing gum or rolling eyes — anything.
The sari is not synonymous with being traditional nor is it a badge of nationalism, new or old. So before a national sari day is announced or the Great Indian Sari Challenge becomes a reality TV show, or a politician unfurls it as her election symbol (and why not?) its present story can be summed up in two quotes by the late textile guru Martand Singh: “The world is looking for organic subjects.” and “Any intervention has a life of its own.” But by god, what an enviable run.